Making the Corner

Here is the way that Haitians determine where to locate the corner of a building.  You take a group of guys, at least six, eight is preferred.  You run a nylon string along the length of one wall, about a foot off the ground to correspond to the top of the footing.  You run the string past where it will meet the adjacent wall, and tie it to a stake, a length of #5 rebar.  Then you repeat the process along the adjacent wall, setting another stake where you think it should go.  This creates an approximate right angle between two lengths of string.

Next you take a framing square and place it against the string.  It is important to realize that a framing square is 18” long x 24” long, while the corner we are setting defines the outline of a building that is 54 feet wide by 94 feet long.  In other words, a framing square error as little as 1/32” could translate to the building being out of square by more than an inch.  Three men balance the framing square, one at each end and one at the fulcrum.  They suspend it in the midair along the two lengths of string and shout at each other whether or not it is bon.  The guys holding the sticks twist and turn their rebar this way and that depending on who seems to be winning the argument over the accuracy of the floating framing square.  The boss man, or two of three, stick their hands in the mix and point and give loud opinions.

Finally after much deliberation and, to my eyes no real change, everyone agrees ‘bon’ and the trio remove the framing square.  Then the guys holding the sticks push them in the dirt to make a divot, set the stakes aside and go get a hammer (a Haitian with a ready tool is a rare sight).  They come back with mallets and pound the stake in the ground at the depression they made.  All of the deliberation over the floating framing square is pointless given how casually they actually place the stake. When both stakes are in place, they check the strings with the framing square again. If it is off they wiggle the sticks some more.  If they wiggle them so much that the stake comes loose, they jam rocks into the voids in widening hole to stop the stake from wobbling.  Any adjustment is acceptable except actually resetting the stake, which would amount to an admission of defeat.  Finally, everyone says ‘bon’ once more and there is general satisfaction.

The process takes anywhere from five to fifteen minutes, which I use to advantage as time to do meditative breathing.  I have no confidence in their system but have learned to be patient while they act it out.  Then, after they are all satisfied I announce that we will check the diagonals, a method of determining squareness that actually measures the entire building rather than relying on a floating framing square.  They look at me in tragic disbelief, as if the say, why does this blan doubt us?  But just as I humored them through their shenanigans, they humor me in mine.

We make a diagonal measurement from opposing corners of the building.  When they vary by six inches the crew gasps, distrustful of mathematics. We move the stakes; they go through their deliberations again, than I check diagonals again.  We do not stop until both the group consensus and the Pythagorean systems are satisfied.

We start laying out the last corner of the MoHI School and the remaining dozen or so foundation points and 8:00 am and do not finish until after noon.  We have lunch and then take another two hours to slide the strings up and down their stakes to get them all a the proper elevation per the laser transit.  It takes almost a full day to place about a hundred feet of string.  Instead of shaking our heads over the gross inefficiency, the crew seems pretty pleased with itself.  It is not my place to argue with success, however painful to achieve.

About paulefallon

Greetings reader. I am a writer, architect, cyclist and father from Cambridge, MA. My primary blog, is an archive of all my published writing. The title refers to a sequence of three yoga positions that increase focus and build strength by shifting the body’s center of gravity. The objective is balance without stability. My writing addresses opposing tension in our world, and my attempt to find balance through understanding that opposition. During 2015-2106 I am cycling through all 48 mainland United States and asking the question "How will we live tomorrow?" That journey is chronicled in a dedicated blog,, that includes personal writing related to my adventure as well as others' responses to my question. Thank you for visiting.
This entry was posted in Haiti and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Making the Corner

  1. Hal Seifert says:

    Teach them the 3-4-5- triangle

  2. Pat says:

    Love it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s